The Story Behind the Song "Telstar" by The Tornados
"Telstar" was a hugely popular instrumental song released on August 17, 1962. The song's unique sound was the result of the inclusion of a rather unique keyboard instrument called a clavioline. Much like a Moog synthesizer, the clavioline used electronic circuitry to create sound. This gave the song its futuristic, otherworldly sound.
Perfect for a song that took its name from a satellite.
What Was Telstar?
Telstar was the name given to a series of telecommunications satellites launched between 1962 and 2018. Telstar I was built by Bell Laboratories and blasted off from Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962 aboard a Thor-Delta rocket.
Telstar I was a multi-national effort to enable transatlantic communication via a series of land-based tracking stations. Six stations in total were built, one in each of the US, England, Canada, Germany, France and Italy, to communicate with the satellite via microwave. Since the satellite spun as it orbited the earth, it had a number of antennas around its middle to allow for uninterrupted communication.
Telstar I provided what was at the time a massive technological leap forward. Though pretty rudimentary by today's standards, it supported transatlantic telephone calls relayed from space and allowed us to experience live transatlantic TV for the very first time.
Telstar Blasting Into Space
Bell Labs played an unlikely role in music. In the 1950s, the lab was performing acoustic research and their Director of Acoustic Research, Max Mathews, was known as "the father of computer music."
Joe Meek and The Tornados
Joe Meek was a British sound engineer, songwriter and producer. Often compared to Phil Spector, Meek developed his own equivalent of the "Wall of Sound" by using techniques in his studio like overdubbing and reverb.
Meek was fascinated by the work being done in Germany, France and the US with analog sound, and he began experimenting with various ways of turning electrical impulses into music. He is widely recognized as being one of the pioneers in so-called "space age" music, a genre that captured the excitement of the times and a fascination with space that marked the '50s and '60s.
Meek wrote "Telstar" for the English band The Tornados. Formed in 1961 primarily as a vehicle for Meek's music, the band was made up of Clem Cattini (drums), Alan Caddy (lead guitar), George Bellamy (rhythm guitar), and Heinz Burt (bass). The song "Telstar" also included Roger LaVern (keyboards) and Geoff Goddard (clavioline).
As well as performing as a band in their own right, between January 1962 and August 1963, the core members of the band were the backing band for singer Billy Fury, appearing as "Billy Fury and The Tornados." From the release of their first single in 1962 through to 1965, The Tornados recorded and released a total of 11 singles on the Decca and Columbia labels, many of those songs being written by Meek.
None was bigger than "Telstar." The song reached the number one spot on the US Billboard singles chart in December 1962, and also peaked at number one on the UK singles chart.
"Telstar" by The Tornados
Despite the commercial success of "Telstar," the Tornados wouldn't last. In the summer of 1963, Meek persuaded Heinz Burt, with whom he was involved, to embark on a solo career. Drummer Cattini left in 1965 to start a successful career as a session musician (he would work with Sir Cliff Richard). That meant that by 1965, none of the original band members remained, though there have been various incarnations of the band over the years, including "The New Tornados" and "Fury's Tornados."
As for the musical impresario who started it all, Meek was a sad figure who ended up taking his own life. Through musical circles in London, Meek had met the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and had turned down an opportunity to work with them. Meek thought that Merseybeat as a genre was on its was out and that electronic music was the wave of the future. A bit mercurial, but not without a certain charm, Meek felt that his music and his musicians were special.
Like Epstein, Meek was also a gay man in a homophobic world. He began a relationship with Heinz Burt, who became his lover and protégé. He lavished money on Burt and convinced him to dye his hair blond.
Meek also suffered from depressive disorders, being both bipolar and a schizophrenic. He believed that Decca executives had bugged his apartment and that people were out to blackmail him for being gay (homosexuality was still illegal in the UK at the time). His recreational use of drugs only worsened his paranoia, and he became fixated on the 1960 horror film "Village of the Damned." He was obsessed with the occult and believed that his best music was influenced by "forces from the other side."
On February 3, 1967, Meek used a shotgun owned by Burt to kill his landlady. He then turned the gun on himself.
Five Musical Facts
- Dave Adams, who helped produce "Telstar," was also a member of Heinz Burt's backing band The Wild Boys. A fellow musician in that band was Ritchie Blackmore, one of the founding members of the mega-band Deep Purple.
- The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said that "Telstar" was one of her favorite pop tunes.
- The song "Telstar" appears at the end of episode #10, second season, of "Mad Men."
- It was also on February 3rd, but in this case in 2003, that actress Lana Clarkson was shot dead by Phil Spector.
- What is it about February 3rd? That was also the date in 1959 that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and "The Big Bopper" were killed in a plane crash. We might need to start a new list like the "27 Club."
© 2019 Kaili Bisson